Date or Target: The Dangerous Link between Human Trafficking and Online Dating

By Kassandra Jones

All she desired was companionship. Instead, she found herself locked in a cruel cycle of sexual exploitation. Shockingly enough, the one who put her there was someone who had professed to love and care for her. With one click of a button, one swipe, Chelsie Lancaster found herself in an unlikely situation. She was selling her body for money at the behest of someone she thought “liked” her. She experienced what sadly many hopeful romantics face when searching for love via online dating.

In Search of Love

In 2019, over 30 million Americans used dating sites in search of a love connection. Whether it is for a casual hookup or a long-term relationship, many turn to online dating as a reliable source to meet potential amours. As millions of people looking for honest connections, traffickers and pimps have also set their sights on the popularity of these online platforms. In an interview with ABC WJLA, Detective Chad Optiz acknowledged the prevalence of traffickers on dating apps. He attributes this uptick to “crackdowns on sites like Craigslist and Backpage [that] are pushing pimps into less targeted spheres, like apps and dating sites.”

Cruel Intentions

Unfortunately, traffickers have greater access to a large swath of individuals in the internet age. They also have far easier access to people’s vulnerabilities, as many often feel freer to express personal troubles online. In the case of Chelsie Lancaster, she was coerced into exotic dancing to earn money to go back to school. Her trafficker seemed to be interested in her life, and after a heart-rending breakup, the attention was a soothing balm. Inevitably as Chelsie fell under the manipulative spell of her online companion, she was slowly coerced into going on dates for money, quickly spiraling into a life of prostitution. Despite a desire to be freed, she feared the repercussions; many who become trapped in the trafficking world have their lives—and the lives of their families—threatened. Eventually, Chelsie broke away, unable to bear the potential danger that hid behind every “date.”

Protecting Oneself  

Although Chelsie’s story is tragic, there are ways in which individuals can protect themselves from online predators. Online dating is supposed to be fun and exciting, but users must be discerning. The following are signs to watch for while searching for “the one”: 

  • Love Bombing: Online interactions often create a false intimacy that can be intoxicating to those suffering from loneliness and neglect. For those specifically seeking love and companionship in an online dating format, love bombing can have a more significant impact. Nevertheless, whether online or in person, one must remember that a natural pacing to building emotional and physical intimacy is of the utmost importance. Natural pacing allows one to see their potential partner for who they truly are (or are not). One should be wary of an online match’s hard and fast love. Traffickers often seek to build a rapid intimacy with a target. They desire the target to fall in love with them as a means to later manipulate and coerce the target into compliance. The bottom line is if a match seems far too eager or is professing love in a short period, this might be an initial sign. Rule of thumb: take it slow.
  • Requesting Explicit Photographs: Traffickers are master manipulators, and they like to have a hold on their victims to exploit them. It could be an emotional hold, a financial hold, or fear. Traffickers may seek to blackmail a target into submission by threatening to release their target’s intimate photographs to friends and family, a practice called “sextortion.” Out of fear of humiliation and social shame, some targets may submit to the desires of traffickers to prevent such an occurrence.
  • Grandiose Promises: Similar to love bombing, grand promises involve pulling in a target by alluding to the fulfillment of deep needs and desires. Some people, like Chelsie, have a financial need or career goals that they wish to meet. Under the guise of romantic interest, traffickers may offer solutions, a job, or access to an industry the target seeks to enter. In Chelsie’s case, she was manipulated into exotic dancing to make extra money, and eventually ended up involved in prostitution, still with the promise of a car, a home, and money.

Conclusion

Love, as they say, is a many-splendored thing. We all need and yearn for it, and in the 21st century, it may be just at the tips of our fingers. Dating apps are an amazing development in how we find companions. Nevertheless, despite the ease of access, those who seek to form love connections online should be vigilant of those who hold dishonorable intentions. Traffickers are on the prowl, and they are accessing dating sites and apps in higher numbers. Users can protect themselves from the wiles of a less-than-suitable match by knowing the warning signs of potential traffickers.

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